Weekend Roundtable: Favorite Historical Adventure Films

According to reviews, this weekend’s release of ‘In the Heart of the Sea’ may not be quite the whale of a tale director Ron Howard intended. When you get a hankering for historical action or adventure set in the 19th Century or earlier, what movies do you go to?

M. Enois Duarte

Micheal Mann’s 1992 classic ‘The Last of the Mohicans‘ is a remarkable visual masterpiece when viewed from the context of what the filmmakers were trying to achieve. In my humble opinion, they realized their vision in stunning fashion, transforming a somewhat forgotten book that really amounts to cheap, melodramatic pop fiction into what can only be described as moving piece of art.

The film serves as a great example of why books and motion pictures can’t be adequately compared, except in the most trivial terms. James Fenimore Cooper’s original novel is frankly terrible, but Mann’s adaptation is superior in practically every way. Not only is the story greatly improved, Dante Spinotti’s photography is astonishingly gorgeous. Nearly every frame looks like 19th Century American Romantic paintings. Then there’s the hauntingly poignant score by Trevor Jones and Randy Edelman with seemingly simple motifs that effectively pull at my heart strings every time I hear it. It’s a magnificent piece of cinema and easily ranks as one my all-time favorite historical adventure films.

Brian Hoss

It almost feels like cheating to say ‘Spartacus‘, because the film is so ripe with fascinating aspects and multi-layered scenes. It’s Kubrick, but at the same time it’s not, and that makes it even more accessible.

Because ‘Spartacus’ is one of those movies so good it could be the answer to the majority of Roundtable questions, I’m going to offer up ‘A Man for All Seasons‘. Having studied the film and the play, I can’t help but think of it as historical drama, or even just drama. Not a TV series kind of drama, but the allegorical kind, the kind portrayed in ‘The Seventh Seal’. As a viewer, you likely know that King Henry VIII got his way, but somehow, the events are not altogether fatalistic. No doubt, the portrayal of Thomas More as clever and principled, but ultimately adhering to the latter characteristic, must have had its corollary (or lack thereof) in the British world of the 1950s. I’m certain that astute viewers will continue to find that for years to come.

Luke Hickman

The widest that ‘The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford‘ ever expanded into Utah was a solitary screen at a crappy art house in a mall whose business tanked following a mass shooting. Determined to see it on the big screen, I went by myself to the last showing on the last day of its small and short Utah run. From its mesmerizing score and warm voiceover, to its brilliant cast of wonderful actors and gorgeous cinematography, the film won me over. Its lengthy runtime blew by. Each time that I’ve watched it since, it’s kept me attached for every minute.

Chris Boylan (Big Picture Big Sound)

For historical fiction set earlier than the 19th Century, I can’t just pick one. There are too many to choose from! Two that I really enjoy are variations on the classic underdog story of a single man battling against a tyrannical government in the face of overwhelming odds. Those would be ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Braveheart’. Both of these films may have significant issues as far as historical accuracy, but they definitely get my juices flowing.

The scene in ‘Gladiator‘ where Russell Crowe’s lead character reveals his true identity to the emperor gives me goosebumps. And the emperor’s edict to entertain (or really to distract) the masses with mindless violent competitions reminds me of our own society’s fascination with trivial pursuits such as professional sports and the Kardashians, while important social and political issues are ignored or given short shrift.

In ‘Braveheart‘, it’s that plain unadulterated righteous indignation that fires me up. Faced with an occupying horde (British invaders in Scotland), William Wallace (Mel Gibson) rallies the locals into fighting back, and actually makes some serious headway against his enemies until being sold out by greedy traitorous lords. The battles can be a bit gruesome (maybe this wasn’t the best choice to share with my then 10-year-old son) but there’s also comic relief, provided mostly by members of my own tribe (the Irish, that is). It’s a powerful story, well told. If you want to watch virtually the same movie, but set in revolutionary America, see ‘The Patriot’.

Another fun historical adventure that I enjoyed seeing in a theater back in the early 1980s and still enjoy watching at home (though the Blu-ray is far from perfect) is ‘Excalibur‘. John Boorman’s take on Arthurian legend wasn’t exactly critically acclaimed, but I like how he handled the natural and supernatural story elements. I even like Merlin’s metal skull cap in place of the traditional pointy wizard hat. Arthur’s awakening and ride out to battle near the end of the film to the tune of Orff’s “O Fortuna” (Carmina Burana) is another one of those goosebump moments for me. A young Helen Mirren plays a deliciously evil step-sister/sorceress Morgana. And look carefully for early appearances by Patrick Stewart and Liam Neeson as knights. (Don’t blink or you might miss them.)

Josh Zyber

Based on the 20-volume book series by author Patrick O’Brian, Peter Weir’s extraordinary historical naval drama ‘Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World‘ accomplishes the nearly impossible task of seamlessly blending the plots, characters and other specific details of several novels into one coherent narrative. Although it only has two significant action scenes, both are stunning, and the depiction of the details of shipboard life at sea during the early 1800s are equally fascinating. The film is among the best that Hollywood can offer, a perfect blend of expensive production values matched with a story worthy of their effort.


What are some of your favorite historical adventure films? Tell us in the Comments.

10 comments

  1. Helen B

    Last of the Mohicans
    The Mission
    Excalibur
    Man for All Seasons
    Lonesome Dove
    Les Miserables
    3:10 to Yuma
    Dances With Wolves

  2. photogdave

    Agree with Master and Commander. I’ve been reading the O’Brian novels and the film does a fantastic job of capturing the feeling of the source material. Russell Crowe is well cast (I used to work with brother on cruise ships and we had to dress up as pirates together!) although I’m not so sure Paul Bettany resembles the doctor well enough.
    Another favourite historical drama of mine is The Lion in Winter. Watching the masterful dueling performances of O’Toole and Hepburn is like auditing an acting class. Young Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton also have memorable roles.

  3. Shannon Nutt

    I’m going to get raked over the coals for this one, since I didn’t submit my own this week, but EXCALIBUR is not a historical film nor historical fiction. It’s fantasy. 😉

    • NJScorpio

      Okay…a more serious reply….

      For some reason, I’m rather burnt out on ‘Gladiator’ and ‘Braveheart’. Possibly due to a combination of repeatedly hearing what aspects weren’t correct, as well as seeing the actors in different lights over the years. Anyway, I can’t imagine myself specifically picking either of those to watch.

      But, when thinking “What would I want to rewatch right now?”, I’d go with ‘Gangs of New York’. While it’s connections to historical facts are fairly loose, I think it still serves combination of entertaining and educating about very specific historical time and place.

  4. Csm101

    Some great titles mentioned. Apocalypto being an excellent one, so bizarre and violent. Way to go Bolo! I also love Kingdom of Heaven and why not Ravenous?!

  5. William Henley

    Well, you can’t go wrong with a Robin Hood movie!
    And Braveheart is a no-brainer

    My favorite is The Patriot.

    You know, I guess technically Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail is a historical adventure film. So would The Ten Commandments, and in Gone With The Wind, we go from Tara to Atlanta to New Orleans to London to Tara. So let’s add those three as well.

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